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Monday, September 9, 2013

Giving context to Islamic art

THE worldwide excitement that accompanies Aidilfitri isn’t always accompanied by commensurate Islamic art activity.

This year, it looks as if the artistry of the Raya greeting card is going to be the visual highlight of the season in Malaysia. The prospects overseas are not much brighter, although there is one surprising new arrival from the US.

After enduring a decade of being accused of anti-Islamic bias, the Metropolitan Museum of Art came through with its reputation enhanced two years ago. The museum was forgiven for its post-9/11 closure of its Islamic art galleries, which came to be accepted as a coincidence instead of a calculated insult.

To reignite some of the enthusiasm of 2011, when the galleries were reopened, the Met is presenting an exhibition called Fifty Years Of Collecting Islamic Art.

Half a century is a bit of an understatement for an institution that was collecting well before 1900. However, it was in 1963 that a Department of Islamic Art was established as a separate entity.
The name of the department has remained the same, and there are many who wish that the galleries had maintained this simple approach rather than being reborn as the “Art of the Arab lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia”.

The story behind the collection is as fascinating as the contents. It may not be as large or as old as some, such as the Louvre’s, but it has a celebrity edge that gives it more modern immediacy than the greyer, more academic recent history of its French counterpart.

The exhibition is more about display than artefacts and until the recent makeover at the Louvre, this was an area in which the Americans has been rather superior to the French. The problem for the Met was not so much how to make the display look interesting as how to make a coherent story out of works from different parts of the Islamic world.

The initial answer was not to try at all. Going back to the 1880s, Islamic Persian tiles were placed in different galleries, rubbing shoulders with Chinese and Japanese ceramics in one room, and with Greek and Phoenician ceramics in another. The situation changed when collectors with strong views on display left bequests to the Met with precise requests on how they wanted their treasures to be viewed. One of the greatest donors was Edward C. Moore. Being the artistic director of Tiffany had not only given him an eye for Islamic art but also for the different type of shop window provided by the Met’s galleries. Moore insisted on his works being shown in the thoughtful manner in which he had collected them, which meant creating some order out of the earlier aesthetic chaos.

America at the turn of the 20th Century was filled with collectors who admired a wide variety of material. One of the greatest benefactors of the Met was Benjamin Altman, a leading New York retailer. Like so many collectors of Islamic art, he was a Jew with tastes that included objects as different as medieval Christian religious paintings and 18th Century furniture. His name is not well known today nor was it a household name then, as he had a strong aversion to publicity. New York newspapers had trouble in finding a photo of him when he died. The New York Times called him “the most retiring man in the city”.

The exhibition at the Met does a useful job in showing how recent the scholarship of Islamic art is. There were connoisseurs aplenty in the 19th Century and even earlier if one counts the European royalty who admired works from the Islamic world while thinking they came from just about anywhere else.

In the early 20th Century, there were no real academic authorities on Islamic art in America or Europe. Dealers were the main source of information. They were certainly not Indiana Jones but they did take an interest in the original excavation settings of the works they sold.

Curators with a more academic inclination emerged from the collecting capitalism of the early 20th Century, setting the Met on a scholarly path from which it has never deviated. The latest exhibition also shows some of the experiments that curators were prepared to make a hundred years ago. Some of these would not be repeated today, when the vigilant eye of the conservator is constantly upon the curator. In 1919, the exhibition Plant Form In Ornament featured numerous Islamic works surrounded by the sorts of living plants that had inspired them.

This exhibition was a huge success, generating some excitement for Islamic works. When it was repeated in 1933, much of the clutter had gone but the natural element remained, including a pond stocked with fish in the middle of the gallery. Through this exhibition visitors can also see how arbitrary some of the archaeological initiatives of the 1930s were. When the Met came to an arrangement with the Iranian government on excavations at Nishapur, the “equal shares” were decided by the toss of a coin for each item.

Anyone visiting New York should see the museum’s revamp of the galleries to see the full story of how much things have changed over a long period. The tradition of collecting Islamic art goes back 130 years but the display emphasis has changed constantly. Through the Met’s efforts, it is possible to see how the need to make sense of Islamic art and to give it a context is an endless quest.

The new look galleries at the Met give a much stronger sense of geographical identity than they did 50 years ago.

Read more: Art & about: Giving context to Islamic art - Sunday Life & Times - New Straits Times

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